It will be two years this October since Joe Zema has returned home to Melbourne, Australia, to see his family.
COVID-19 was the main reason why he didn’t venture far from his Texas residence over the last 16 months. But he also stayed in North America in hopes of punting for a professional football team.
Through nearly two weeks of Alouettes training camp, this might be the closest the 26-year-old has come to fulfilling his dream. But Saturday night’s second and final scrimmage at Molson Stadium could determine the fate of Zema, whose background is in Australian Rules Football.
“I’m feeling good at the moment, although we have another week of training camp and we have a really good group of specialists,” Zema said Friday during a video conference. “I’m just hoping I can keep putting my best foot out there. The rest will take care of itself.”
The 6-foot, 210-pound Zema was the Als’ first pick in this year’s CFL global draft, the brainchild of commissioner Randy Ambrosie, who has visions of increasing the league’s exposure beyond North America.
Zema is one of three global players — along with Japanese running-back Taku Lee and French receiver Kevin Kaya — at camp. This season, every CFL team must have one such player on its active roster.
Zema has a shot of being that guy, and the Als could do worse. It’s quite evident he has a strong, booming leg and has displayed significant hang time on his punts.
The only thing that might work against him is that he punts exclusively, while the three other remaining candidates — David Côté from Université Laval, Félix Ménard-Brière, who has bounced around the CFL on practice rosters, and import Matt Mengel — punt and place-kick.
The coaching staff must decide whether they want to use one or two kickers. Boris Bede handled all the Als’ kicking chores for years, but was traded to Toronto in 2020 for Tyler Crapigna, who barely lasted a week into camp before being released, subsequently signed by Winnipeg.
“He (Zema) is an outstanding punter,” head coach Khari Jones said this week. “I’ve loved what I’ve seen so far. Directionally, he puts it where he wants. He has great hang time. He’s looking really good. He definitely maybe has the inside track. He has a strong leg. Let’s see how it plays out. I like what I’ve been seeing so far from him.”
Zema graduated from Australian Catholic University with a degree in exercise and sports science before getting his first taste of North American football at the University of the Incarnate Word in Texas, where he spent one season as a graduate transfer. He punted 77 times for the Cardinals, producing a 46.7-yard average. Thirty-one of his punts were for 50-plus yards.
Now he’s getting accustomed to the longer and wider Canadian field and, having played the physical Australian style football, will have no reluctance going downfield and attempting to make tackles. Zema has gone to mini camps with the New York Jets and Tampa Bay Buccaneers, tried out for the Jacksonville Jaguars and also played in the Alliance of American Football.
“There’s obviously a bit more space to work with (in the CFL),” Zema said. “That allows me some opportunities to use all the tricks in my bag, which is going to be fun.
“I just wanted to come up here and show what I could do. I can take advantage of some of the rules here. I just wanted to come and punt the best I can. The rest is out of my hands.”
Saturday’s scrimmage isn’t open to fans.
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